Episode 45 Free the Nip: Breasts Throughout History

There’s really no body part so politicized or fetishized than a woman’s breast. But this was not always the case. For hundreds of years, the breast was a primary symbol of nourishment and nurturance–the sign of a mother’s love. The story of the breast and how it has been perceived throughout history is a fascinating one; it takes us through the times that breasts were celebrated, hidden, politicized and commercialized. They have been both hated and loved simultaneously, and have somehow always carried some type of meaning in Western societies. Join us as we discuss the breast and the transformation of its symbolism throughout history!

Feminist Corner:

  • Of all the points in time discussed, which depictions of the breast did you resonate with the most? Which the least?
  • Something that came up a lot in this episode is the division between “good” and “bad” breast. What are some examples in your own life that align with one or both of these ideas about breasts?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

Ancient Egypt

  • Mother goddess Isis, the queen of Egypt,  was associated with the milk-giving cow, the tree of life and the throne of the pharaohs. The idea was that you would go sit on her lap and suckle from her breast and get divine nourishment. 
  • Hapi, god of the Nile, had breasts attached to his torso as a sign of fertility.

Ancient Greece

  • Athena, the virgin goddess of war and wisdom, was always seen covered in heavy draperies for protection in battle
  • Aphrodite, goddess of love, was the opposite and was always half naked. 
  • Hera, queen of the gods and zeus’s wife, had breast milk that, if suckled, would make the drinker immortal. 

Ancient Rome

  • In the birth of Rome, Romulus and Remus who were the twin sons of the mortal Rhea and the war god Mars, were thrown into the river Tiber and a she-wolf rescued them and raised them. She breastfed them and the thought was that they became more strong and wolf-like because of it. 

Biblical times

  • Many references to the breast being “fertile” and “nourishing” 
  • In the Hebrew bible, women were valued as the vessels of creation. 
  • In the New Testament, female flesh was seen as a threat to spiritual perfection because it was thought to take attention away from God and tempted people into fornication and adultery. 

12th century in France

  • There were songs praising smaller sized breasts and women with them.
  • Clothing was changing at the time to match this. 

Late middle ages

  • Women lowered their necklines and molded their clothes to accentuate their breasts. 
  • During the plague, the breast was actually seen as a comforting and nurturing sign.

The renaissance

  • A notable split started to occur between the upper and lower classes.
  • Poor women were paid wetnurses for the rich, because breastfeeding was seen as subjecting the bosom to animal-like practices.

The 1500s (during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign)

  • The body of the “weak and feeble” woman was generally hidden under heavy, elaborate clothing that crushed her chest and left only her hands and face open. 
  • The stiff, boned bodice became popular and in style.

The French Revolution

  • Women began to start breastfeeding their own babies again rather than having wetnurses because poor women started refusing taking on this role.
  • If you were poor but fed your child from your own breast, the thought was that you loved your child whereas if a wetnurse fed your child you were a part of the evil bourgeoisie. 
  • The clothes women wore started to change too. They moved away from the corsets, bc also a sign of the rich, and reverted to more flowy loose dresses like the ancient greeks and romans, with trousers underneath to be more egalitarian. 

Throughout the 1900s

  • Breasts continued to be politicized. 
  • During WWI, propaganda added new dimensions to the political use of the breast where bare-breasted women were on the covers of posters for servicemen to remind them to “protect this nation’s honor” 
  • Brassieres or bras came onto the scene in the later 1900s. 
  • Sports bras, originally called “jog bras” were made in the 1970s.
  • Victoria’s Secret emerged in the 1980s-90s, as well as the “wonder-bra.”

Transition into the 2000s

  • Women became both buyers and sellers in the breast market. 
  • As buyers, they were buying clothes and other items to make breasts bigger or look bigger (i.e. return of the corset).
  • The Free the Nipple movement was started in 2014 when an american filmmaker Lina Esco released a film called Free the Nipple, about a group of women who launch a revolution to be able to be topless, like men, wherever they want.


Benton, A. (2022, March 23). Free the Nipple: A History of the Bra – The Mancunion. https://mancunion.com/2022/03/23/free-the-nipple-a-history-of-the-bra/

Robey, T. E. (2017, December 21). There Was Never a Time When Western Society Wasn’t Weird About Cleavage. Racked. https://www.racked.com/2017/12/21/16738658/cleavage-history

Yalom, M. (1998). History of the Breast. Penguin Random House.

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